The Corner

1930s Isolationism

This is a very complex and horribly misunderstood topic. It is usually labelled an exclusively rightwing phenomenon, which is just nonsense on stilts. The America First Committee was hardly an exclusively rightwing organization. It was festooned with liberals. While at Harvard, John F. Kennedy sent the AFC $100 with a note saying “What all of you are doing is vital.” Sargent Shriver and JFK’s oldest brother Joe were both members of AFC affiliate groups. Gore Vidal [cue laughtrack] ran the AFC chapter at Phillips Exeter Academy. Nobel-Prize winner Sinclair Lewis — of “It Can’t Happen Here” fame — was a very active member. As was Nation Editor Oswald Garrison Villard.

One of the AFC’s leaders, JT Flynn, is regularly dubbed a leader of the Old Right even though he was essentially a socialist who’d written a lefty muckraking column for the New Republic for years. As an America-firster, Flynn had close ties to the American Socialist Party of Norman Thomas — who was also an America-Firster.

I bring this up because of all the email I’m getting about Lindbergh from people who have memorized certain opinions without understanding them. Again, I’m not a huge fan of the guy and I don’t agree with what he said about Jews or the war. His wife was essentially a socialist (if not a fascist) and few would say that Lindbergh’s views on economics were particularly free-market.

But what people should at least spend five minutes pondering is that the war these isolationists didn’t want to fight was World War I, not World War II. Vast swaths of American liberals and progressives were disillusioned by the first world war — a “progressive” war fought for progressive ends — and didn’t want to repeat that calamity (much as today’s liberals can’t shake their fear of Vietnam). To say that folks who didn’t want to fight World War Two in the 1930s were automatically pro-Nazi (code for favoring the persecution of the Jews) is a grotesque exaggeration. Was Charles Beard pro-Nazi? Was John Dewey?

I am in no way saying that isolationists were all nice people, smart people or good people. But one can fall far short of favoring Nazism and still be a jerk an idiot or a villain. Also, let’s not forget how many Communists opposed war during World War II because their boy Stalin was all chummy with Hitler.

Sometimes people take horrible positions not because they’re evil or driven by some profoundly distorted ideology but simply because they’re wrong.

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